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The Expendables, Eight

Tuesday 29th November 2016
The Premier League's early doors have closed. With every club having played thirteen matches, we have officially entered the campaign's middle third. Usually by this time, teams have sorted themselves. One typically emerges as a front-runner for the title. At the table's opposite end, one or two appear irrevocably destined for relegation. Then, it becomes a question of who will fill in the remaining Champions League places and who, among three or four sides, will be exiled to the Championship? This season, none of that has yet occurred.

Three clubs, leaders Chelsea, along with Liverpool and Manchester City are separated by a single point at the top. Arsenal are only three in arrears. Tottenham, four behind the Gunners, and Manchester United, eight back, still have a shout at the Champions League, if not the title. Of the six, only one employs a manager who has not won a league title in one of Europe's four elite leagues. That is not to say Mauricio Pochettino is a slouch. Until Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho was ruled out for six weeks with an ankle injury on the weekend, there was an argument to be made the Argentine had the least talent to work with among the contenders, just as he did when he pushed Southampton towards the table's top half. The point is, if ever there was a campaign to back up the argument the Prem is the world's most competitive league, this is it. Five managers in the title picture who know how to win, one who specialises in getting more from his side than anyone dreamed they had. It's going to be a season-long melee.

As congested as the top of the table is, the bottom is even more crowded. There are no fewer than eight clubs within a single result of the relegation zone. Thirteenth and fourteenth place are not as safe as they used to be. The sides sitting eleventh and twelfth shouldn't be feeling too comfortable, either. For the moment, though, I'll leave them alone. Instead, I'll focus on the eight sides either flirting too dangerously with relegation or staring directly into its eyes. Using their roster, current manager, position in the table, and strength of schedule as criteria, I'll try to measure just how deep a hole each has dug for themselves, and whether they'll be able to climb out, beginning with the deepest first.
Hull City--Manager: Mike Phelan

Sometimes, the simplest statistics are the most telling. Points don't always fit that characterization, but goal difference frequently does. Hull has far and away the worst goal differential for any Premier League club. Given the (don't call us) Tigers are understaffed, pose little threat in attack (they've scored fewer goals than every other Premier League club), are led by a first-time manager, and their ownership is in turmoil, it's difficult to see how Hull can escape relegation. That they won their first two matches of the campaign, not to mention taking Manchester United to added time in their third before capitulating, suggests they've overachieved just to be in eighteenth. They've had a better rate of success against opponents than Swansea and Sunderland, the two clubs below them, but have had, by a smidgen when compared to the Black Cats, the easiest schedule to date of the three. That means their opponents' quality is going to increase, making their task all the more difficult. Unless the disinterested owners have a change of heart and provide a sizable war chest for Phelan, the only direction for Hull is down.

Crystal Palace--Manager: Alan Pardew

The Eagles' fortunes are balanced on a knife's edge at the moment. One crucial decision, and how soon club chairman Steve Parish makes it, may be the difference between staying up and going down. Said decision is to part ways with manager Alan Pardew. Being a fondly remembered player, the club were eager to rescue Pardew from his personal purgatory as Newcastle United manager. Initially, it paid off. Palace moved into the table's top half during his first half-season at the helm at Selhurst Park. A full season was another matter, however. In 2015-16, Palace regressed to a fifteenth place finish. Despite purchasing Christian Benteke from Liverpool in the summer, the Belgian's five goals in eleven 2016-17 league appearances have largely been wasted, the 5-4 defeat to Swansea on the weekend being a perfect example. In this group of eight struggling sides, Palace's success rate in accumulating points is in the middle of the pack. The problem is they've had by far the easiest schedule to date. Like Hull, the road ahead will rise steeply. The Eagles have the players to fly up that hill. The question is how long their beleaguered manager will be permitted to clip their wings?

Swansea City--Manager: Bob Bradley

At the moment, the Swans are more like ugly ducklings, holding down the middle spot in the relegation zone. Still, they only need to make up one win to pass both Hull and Crystal Palace into safety. Unlike the latter, however, they've already played their coaching card. with Bob Bradley replacing Francesco Guidolin on October 3rd. Bradley wasn't gifted the honeymoon surge many new bosses receive, unsurprising given Guidolin had been popular among the players. Rather, Bradley has had to work to win over the dressing room. The wild 5-4 win over Palace, which saw the Welsh side give up the lead late, then storm back to reclaim it at the death, suggests he may have done just that. The schedule lightens up somewhat from here on, too, with the Swans having faced the most difficult fixture list to date among the relegation threatened octet. Swansea have the players to grind out results, and the American is more known for doing so as a manager than for his tactical nous. On the other hand, the win over Palace also highlights the need to shore up an extremely leaky defence. One gets the feeling Bradley may give it a run but come up just short, as he did last season when seeking promotion to Ligue 1 with Le Havre.

Sunderland--Manager: David Moyes

It took some time, but the Moyes effect is in play at the Stadium of Light. It helped that Philippe Coutinho went down with an ankle injury in the first half of their last match, but the Black Cats didn't let the Reds cross goalkeeper Jordan Pickford's path until the seventy-fifth minute, courtesy of a Divock Origi half cross/half shot which squeaked just inside the far post. James Milner then converted from the spot in added time, but Sunderland's defensive shape is vastly improved. To bring their goal difference back into single digits and start banking some points, they'll also need to step it up at the other end. Fabio Borini is expected to return from his thigh injury in December. Nonetheless, with a woeful 3.36 rate of success when it comes to results, Moyes may be asking Santa, aka Sunderland owner Ellis Short, for another striker in the January transfer window.

Burnley--Manager: Sean Dyche

The Clarets are the furthest from danger among the eight clubs in this list. Wins against three top ten sides, including Watford, Everton, and, most impressively, Liverpool have put them there. Hull are the only other club member to have beaten a side in the table's top half. Just barely, at that, Southampton being in tenth. Tom Heaton also stopped all seven of the thirty-eight attempted shots Manchester United put on target in their typically lopsided goalless draw at Turf Moor. Unfortunately, when you play Russian roulette with your season that frequently, it's only a matter of time before there's a bullet in the chamber. Nine goals to the bad overall hints Burnley have been punching above their weight. Expect a regression to the norm. Whether they fall as far as the bottom three and the Championship is a possibility, but they've at least given themselves a decent head start on the sides who'll need to catch up.

West Ham--Manager: Slaven Bilić

Last year's seventh place finish is a distant memory for the Hammers. This season, they are the only club outside the relegation places with a double-digit goal difference. Injuries have played their part, both on defence and up front, where Andy Carroll is again on the trainer's table. At the back, Slaven Bilić was forced to go with a back three against Manchester United on the weekend. Darren Randolph did a credible Tom Heaton imitation against the Red Devils, allowing his side to escape with a draw at Old Trafford. On Wednesday, in the League Cup, he'll have to do it again. Unlike Burnley, who have been far better than the sum of their parts, West Ham have been worse. With their schedule only set to be more difficult, they need to get some healthy bodies back. As sublime as Dmitri Payet is from set pieces, even he cannot stave off relegation single-handedly.

Middlesbrough--Manager: Aitor Karanka

Aitor Karanka hasn't the flash of Bryan Robson, who famously lost his trousers to commemorate his hiring as Boro boss. The Basque's personality is much more staid, and his side is reflecting it with their steady approach. The few goals they've scored have been timely, enabling them to hang with top clubs such as Manchester City and Arsenal, drawing against both. Their goal differential is the best of this bunch, having only conceded three more than they've scored. While their strength of schedule has been average, that's a good thing. Although their road won't get any easier, it won't get worse, either. Of the three newly promoted sides, Boro appear the most likely to succeed in staying in the top flight for a second season. An experienced core includes Alvaro Negredo, Stuart Downing, David Nugent, and the goaltending duo, Victor Valdes and Brad Guzan. With such leadership, it's not difficult to predict Boro will maintain their steady pace, and find themselves in a safe place at the season's end.

Leicester City--Manager: Claudio Ranieri

Last year, Claudio Ranieri's squad outfoxed the entire Premier League, not to mention fans and pundits around the world. It hasn't been so easy raiding the hen house a second time around. Much of that has to do with roster turnover. Despite convincing Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez to stay, the most vital player to the club's success sought pastures new. N'Golo Kante is now wearing Stamford Bridge rather than King Power blue, with the difference he makes evident in both side's fortunes. Whichever side Kante plays for tops the league. The other has to worry about relegation. The Frenchman's departure has been painful to the back line he once protected. They are now conceding goals too rapidly for their attack to keep up, although it must be said the entire squad has been saving its best for the Champions League, where they are through to the knockout phase as Group G winners with four wins, a draw, seven goals scored, and only one conceded. Once the final group game is played, the Foxes will be able to devote their energies solely to the Premier League for two months. Expect them to move up the table. Even without Kante, they are just too good a side, with too positive a manager, to languish in a relegation fight.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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